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November 2, 2012
Game 9: 'Race cars, lasers, aeroplanes - It's a Duck blur'
Can the Trojans write a new 'Duck Tale' against undefeated Oregon's rapid-fire offense?
The USC Trojans (6-2, 4-2 in the Pac-12), ranked No. 17 in the BCS standings and by the USA Today coaches' poll, and No. 18 by the Associated Press, return home to face the Oregon Ducks (8-0, 5-0), ranked No. 2 by USA Today and the AP and No. 4 in the BCS standings. Kickoff is set for 4 p.m. (PDT) on Saturday, November 3 in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a national FOX television audience. It is the 59th meeting between the two schools, with Troy holding a 38-18-2 edge. The then 18th-ranked Trojans defeated then No. 4 Oregon, 38-35, a year ago in Eugene, but the Ducks have won three of the past five meetings, including a 53-32 victory in the previous Los Angeles tussle in 2010.
A week ago, the Trojans embarrassed themselves with 13 penalties, five turnovers and the lack of a killer instinct, allowing Arizona to rally from a 15-point third-quarter deficit to win, 39-36, in Tucson. Matt Barkley passed for a school record 493 yards, and Marqise Lee notched a Pac-12 record 345 receiving yards on 16 catches, making the loss all the more unbearable for the team and fans alike. Meanwhile, it was the Ducks' turn to make quick work of conference doormat Colorado, trampling the Buffaloes, 70-14, at Autzen Stadium. The Ducks rushed for 425 yards and seven TDs, and sophomore De'Anthony Thomas added a ridiculously athletic 73-yard punt return for a score in a game Oregon led 56-0 at the half.
Trojan Coach Lane Kiffin (31-15 career collegiate head coaching record; 24-9 at USC) is in his third season at USC. He also coached the Oakland Raiders in 2007-08, after spending the preceding six seasons as an assistant at USC. Meanwhile, Oregon headman Chip Kelly (42-6) is in his fourth season in Eugene, and looking for his fourth consecutive conference title. While humans who watch football rank Oregon as the second-best team nationally behind defending BCS champion Alabama, the Ducks are not so well liked by computer algorithms. This may be Kelly's most athletic and physical Duck team however, and many across the country are intrigued to see how they perform in just their second real road game of the season.
Kelly and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich may have ratcheted up the Ducks' hyper-speed offense yet another level in 2012. Oregon leads the Pac-12 in rushing (330.6 yards per game, first nationally) and scoring (53.4 points per game, third nationally) - and ranks just behind Arizona in total offense (540.1 yards per game, seventh nationally). Need a quick score? Of Oregon's 54 TD drives in 2012, 33 have lasted less than two minutes and 19 have taken 60 seconds or less. And, while the Ducks' passing offense ranks eighth in the conference in yards gained, it ranks third in the Pac-12 (and 24th nationally) in efficiency. That word - efficiency - has been the hallmark of redshirt freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota, who may be the perfect specimen to operate Kelly's system. Completing almost 69 percent of his passes, he's thrown 18 TDs against just five interceptions and is third on the team with 378 rushing yards (he's also scored three times on the ground and once receiving on a see-it-to-believe-it play against Arizona State). SophomoreBryan Bennett, who lost the QB competition in camp, will make cameos throughout the game and is a real threat running the ball.
Unlike Arizona, which gave the Trojans fits in the second half a week ago, the Ducks' zone-read/spread-option/whatever-you-want-to-call-it is truly centered on running the football. Senior Kenjon Barner has stepped into the starting role and done just fine replacing LaMichael James. Barner is averaging 6.9 yards per carry while gaining 974 yards and scoring 15 total TDs (one receiving on 13 total catches). He's also broken the 100-yard barrier in the Ducks past four games. I'll talk about Thomas in the running backs section, but what the diminutive, fleet-footed sophomore brings to the Ducks' offense is almost indefinable. Thomas averages 8.6 yards per carry as the Ducks' second leading rusher. He leads Oregon with 24 receptions and is among the nation's top punt returners. He has 11 total TDs on 100 touches in 2012. Barner and Thomas account for 26 of Oregon's 59 TDs through eight games. True freshman Byron Marshall will likely see a few carries, as well.
Oregon's receiver group is capable, but underutilized with how effective Oregon has been running the football. Junior Josh Huff has the most on-field experience but has only nine grabs (two TDs). Junior Daryle Hawkins (16 catches, two TDs), sophomore Keanon Lowe (13 grabs, two scores) and freshman Bralon Addison (19 catches, three TDs) have been the most consistent wideouts. Sophomore tight end Colt Lyerla has been a bit of a revelation, though he missed the Colorado game with an injury. Lyerla has 12 catches, four for scores, and averages 15.8 yards per. He's also been used as a big-back type in some running situations, carrying 13 times for 82 yards.
The Ducks have had to deal with their share of injuries up front, the worst being a knee injury prior to the season to senior left guard Carson York. However, the group has gelled, especially young tackles Tyler Johnstone, a redshirt freshman on the left side, and sophomore Jake Fisher on the right. Sophomore center Hroniss Grasu is the group's leader, while senior left guard Ryan Clanton has been solid. Mana Greig, who had taken over the left guard spot from senior Nick Cody, suffered a knee injury against Colorado that may sideline him for the rest of the season. Expect to see Cody back in the starting group on Saturday.
The Duck defense has been the real revelation in 2012. Under longtime coordinator Nick Aliotti, Oregon leads the conference in pass efficiency defense (13th nationally) and is in the national top 25 in scoring defense, turnover margin, sacks and tackles for loss. The Ducks have struggled from time to time against the run, but are allowing just 351.5 total yards per game. A big key has been Oregon's red-zone defense, which ranks third nationally. Oregon's opponents have scored just 17 times in 31 visits inside the Ducks' 20 - only six of those have been touchdowns.
Up front, senior end Dion Jordan has been the Ducks' leader. With five sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss and 33 total stops, he's been a disrupter. He went down early against Colorado with an unspecified shoulder injury, but is expected to be available Saturday. Across from him, junior Taylor Hart moved from a tackle spot a season ago to end in 2012. Rotating in at the end spots are freshman DeForest Buckner and sophomore Tony Washington. Inside, junior Wade Keliikipi (16 tackles, two sacks) and senior Isaac Remington (13 stops) see most of the time. But don't sleep on reserves Ricky Heimuli, a junior (nine tackles) and Arik Armstead, a true freshman (19 tackles).
Athletic senior Michael Clay leads the Ducks with 43 tackles from his weakside linebacker spot. Senior MLB Kiko Alonso missed the Colorado game with a wrist injury but is expected back for USC and is second on the team with 42 stops. The playmaker has eight tackles for loss and two interceptions on the year. Junior Boseko Lokombo handles the strong side. He has 17 tackles and can also step up to a rush end spot, as he did last week in Jordan's absence. Redshirt freshman Tyson Coleman (28 tackles) also sees plenty of action on the strong side, as does sophomore Derrick Malone (34 stops) on the weakside.
The Ducks took a big hit when senior free safety John Boyett had to retire from football early in the season due to repeated injuries. Junior Avery Patterson jumped right into his spot, though, and has impressed with 35 tackles and a team-leading three interceptions. Junior strong safety Brian Jackson has been solid with 32 tackles and five pass break-ups. Sophomores Terrance Mitchell (14 tackles) and Ifo Ekpre-Olumu (31 stops, two INTs, a team-leading 10 pass break-ups) have performed well at cornerback in 2012. Other role players include sophomore corner Troy Hill (20 tackles, one pick) and sophomore Erick Dargan (28 tackles), who sees a lot of time in nickel sets.
Oregon Special Teams
Junior Alejandro Maldonado, who missed the possible game-tying field goal at the gun last season against USC, handles kickoffs while senior Rob Beard handles placekicking. Beard is just four-of-seven on FG attempts (he's perfect on 55 PATs). Senior punterJackson Rice, who the Trojans got a block against last year averages just 37.7 yards per boot, but has dropped nine of his 32 kicks inside the 20. Thomas averages 18.3 yards per punt return, including a 73-yard score last week. He's also split kick return duties with wideout Lowe, but the Ducks rank last in the nation in that area, shockingly.
USC Offensive Gameplan
As everyone knows, USC's offense put up huge stats in last weekend's loss at Arizona - both good and bad. Looking back at that game and the Oregon game in 2011, it almost appears as though, early on, Kiffin was trying to operate the USC offense in a similar vein: consuming time; running the football, if not overly effectively, at least to keep the threat of it available; and looking to make plays as necessary in the passing game, while taking a shot or two downfield here and there. If so, one wonders if Kiffin not only overthought facing an Arizona defense that the Trojans could have quickly and simply put 50 points on (and still committed all five of those turnovers), while perhaps showing too much of his hand for this week's matchup?
To answer the second half of that question, probably not. When you watch as much film as modern-day college football coaches do, especially of conference opponents, it's tough to come up with looks the opposition really hasn't seen before. Both USC and Oregon might have a half-dozen or so things they've kept in their pockets until this week. Oregon knows from last season that USC wants to hang on to the football (the Trojans had a 36-24 time of possession edge in Eugene) and knows that Lee and Robert Woods will be the main targets for Barkley. However, looking back to the losses to Oregon in 2009 and 2010, USC's penalties and turnovers, as well as trouble converting in the red zone, were key. Sound familiar?
The one thing that Kiffin has shown during his two-plus seasons that should give USC fans some hope is that he does tend to bring his most aggressive and thoughtful gameplanning efforts to the table in games where the Trojans are decided underdogs. Rather than the play-not-to-lose football sometimes evident against opponents USC should hammer, it's almost like the underdog role removes the mental pressure from him. The Trojans played balls-out football from the get-go last season against Notre Dame, Stanford and Oregon - winning two of the three and losing the third in triple-OT. Yes, Oregon's defense is improved from 2011. But, at the same time, Oregon hasn't faced an offense as talented as the Trojans yet. Expect a similar tack from USC as they used a season ago, perhaps with some more aggressive downfield looks in an effort to get the home crowd revved up. USC should be able to score, but do the Trojans have enough healthy running backs to keep Oregon honest and its pass rush from teeing off on Barkley? If USC is unable to muster any rushing attack, it'll make things tough.
USC Defensive Gameplan
It must be tough for the USC defensive brain trust to allow itself to believe holding a team to less than 40 points would be the goal. But, that's what it is. Last year, USC got the job done - and nearly in spectacular fashion, holding Oregon to 14 offensive points through three quarters. Actually, the performance was somewhat similar to USC's effort against Arizona last week. For 2.5 quarters in the desert, the Trojans did a fine job of containing Scott and the Wildcats, but eventually wilted in the heat and in the shadow of the USC offense's inability to put Arizona away. The Trojans can't afford a similar breakdown this week, obviously.
Really, Kiffin's take in the run up to last season's meeting remains the best description I've seen of Oregon's offense: taking a 50-year old option-style rushing offense, adding some modern-day spread concepts and then playing at 100 miles per hour. The Ducks create mismatches by not allowing you to change personnel and then hit you with a bunch of similar formations that can result in any number of passing or running plays. It all seems so simple, but when the Ducks are moving at top speed, the wear and tear on a defense takes even more of a mental toll than physical.
What USC accomplished a season ago was thanks to two things: a front four that mixed looks and created a consistent push upfield (while maintaining contain on the corners) that disrupted Thomas' decision making; and a young linebacker group that truly stayed at home and played gap control football to near perfection. To think that USC held an Oregon offense responsible for 96 plays of 25 yards or longer since the beginning of the 2011 season to a long run of 17 yards is just astounding, even a year later. There's no additional secret sauce this year. First and foremost, USC must minimize missed tackles. Next, USC needs its front four to step up - and the admirably aggressive Morgan Breslin needs to avoid getting suckered by the Duck attack. Trojan linebackers Hayes Pullard, Dion Bailey and Lamar Dawson cannot overrun plays, get caught flat-footed and must be active in their gaps. Where will T.J. McDonald line up? That's also going to be a key for the Ducks' reads. He could make big plays if they misread him - and if he avoids dumb penalties.
That a bit of the luster has fallen off this matchup is wholly the Trojans' fault. USC's coaches and players repeatedly hurt their own cause last weekend, causing a needless loss - one that puts its hopes of a Pac-12 South division title in serious jeopardy given the remaining schedule.
But while the spotlight isn't shining as brightly on the matchup as it could have, this is still a huge game for both teams. For the Ducks, the stakes are clear. For the Trojans and Kiffin, the final stretch of 2012 has become about setting the table for the final two years of sanctions and creating a hope that USC will remain a force in the conference.
Are the Trojans capable of winning this game? Of course they are. The talent is there, the ability to execute exists on both sides of the ball, and it's sure as hell a lot easier for USC to play the Ducks in the Coliseum than at Autzen. People have forgotten (very quickly) that USC absolutely and unquestionably dominated the Ducks for three quarters in Eugene a season ago. The Trojans have the speed on defense to make Oregon work harder for its points than most teams, and USC's offensive weapons are undeniable. However, to believe that Kiffin's 2012 bunch will put its issues - penalties, turnovers, inconsistent offensive results - to rest in a single week of practice to come around and upset a Duck team that looks even better than last year's edition is probably too much to expect. In the end, this game is likely to mirror the 2010 contest in L.A. between the two schools - a close game in the third quarter will likely see the Ducks slip away late.
Oregon 46, USC 34
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 12 years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the advertising industry. He grew up watching USC dominate the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl and ended up a Trojan journalism school alum ('94). He's traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants)